The Kent County Commissioners have sealed the fate of Millington Elementary School, voting unanimously to take the deed of the facility that was shuttered prior to the 2017/2018 school-year—when five elementary schools were consolidated to three to cover a $2 million budget shortfall and adjust for a trend in declining enrollment.
The vacant facility is now a surplus property of the county and the school system will shed $50,000 in annual maintenance costs.
The vote came after discussions with the Kent County School Board at Tuesday’s weekly Commissioners meeting on May 21. Commissioner Ron Fithian called for the meeting to consider contingencies that would require the facility be reactivated.
Fithian said there was hesitance to take the vacant facility out of the school system’s inventory because there looms a possibility of a $60 million capital project to renovate or replace the Kent County Middle School in Chestertown. The county’s share and other costs would come to $32 million through 2025; the state would pick up the rest.
In that event, a contingency has been considered to reactivate the facility. Sixth graders would be sent to the county’s four elementary schools and seventh and eighth graders would be absorbed by the high school, which once served 1,350 students. Current enrollment is around 530 students.
Fithian conceded that it might not be the best idea, but that it was worth a discussion in light of a substantial capital project facing the county.
“Once we make the decision that that doesn’t work, we’re basically signing on to…a major renovation at the middle school or the idea of a new middle school,” he said at the opening of the meeting. Fithian believes that renovations at Millington could be considerably less than a new middle school.
A $32 million obligation to renovate or repair the middle school would cost an additional $2 million in annual debt service and make property tax increases inevitable. A property tax increase of 10 cents would be needed to meet the debt service.
Kent County Chief Financial Officer Pat Merritt provided a breakdown of the costs and the annual debt service of a new middle school through 2025.
“If that’s the direction we’re going then the taxpayers should be forewarned,” Fithian said.
Kent currently has the second highest property tax rate on the Eastern Shore and is seventh highest in the state.
The county is in the process of raising the income tax (piggyback tax) to the allowable maximum of 3.2 percent to help with school funding in fiscal 2020. A vote is expected soon. But there’s little interest in a property tax increase this year.
Couch and McGee reject Millington contingency
Kent School Superintendent Karen Couch said the school system would lose the efficiencies it gained under consolidation. Students were absorbed into H.H. Garnet in Chestertown, Galena and Rock Hall elementary schools.
“In order to consolidate from five elementary schools to three we were able to significantly reduce our operating budget by eliminating a number of positions that were needed to staff [Millington],” Couch said.”
She said Millington would need capital improvements as well and highlighted immediate needs like a new roof and HVAC system. She also questioned whether the state would help fund any of the repairs for the facility.
“We’re going to have to talk about whether the state is going to participate in any of the capital improvements we would have if we reopened Millington.”
Couch also opined that the commissioners’ decision to increase the piggyback tax would open the door to more state funding, potentially making the county’s share of a new middle school less than the 50/50 split. She did not offer specifics on how cost sharing would work.
KCPS School Board Vice-President Trish McGee implied that the commissioners raised the specter of an expensive middle school to put Millington back in play.
“I almost worry that the $32 million is something to pull everybody up by their bootstraps, like oh my god this is what’s going to happen if we don’t reopen Millington or put the seventh and eighth graders at the high school,” She told the commissioners. “We can only do this collaboratively and we need to stop drawing these lines in the sand…”
Commissioner Bob Jacob challenged McGee on the notion that the commissioners were drawing a line in the sand.
“No one is drawing a line,” he said. “We have to be financially responsible on decisions that were planning five years from now.”
McGee replied that the line was drawn when Millington was recently thrown back “into the mix.”
“We’re two years beyond that,” she said. “It’s like pulling stitches out of a wound.”
Residents in Millington fought hard to keep the school open and the morale of the community suffered.
Jacob responded that the school board has drawn its own line in the sand by taking Millington completely off the table.
“The line in the sand as I hear it is the board of education saying Millington is non-negotiable,” he said.
In a last ditch effort to keep Millington in the school system’s inventory for contingency, Commissioner Tom Mason offered to simply pay the $50,000 in annual upkeep, but McGee objected and said keeping title to the facility prevented the school system from forging ahead.
“It prevents us from being able to move forward with our own plan,” she said. She said it questions the unanimous vote of the school board in 2017.
“You don’t get do-over,” she said. “We’re not thinking about re-opening [Millington].”
Fithian responded, “Then you’ve just satisfied what we asked to talk about. If there’s no second-guessing then we’ll take it over and pay for it.”
Moments later the commissioners voted unanimously to take the deed to Millington Elementary to the applause of audience members.
Fithian said after the meeting that he was glad to have had the conversation.
“The county is facing a very costly capital project in a time of declining enrollment… that has gone on for years,” he said. “So it was important to have this conversation in the public record.”